The NeverTrumpers Rediscover the Binary Election

Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party activist Manilan Houle, of Minneapolis, is the first person waiting in line outside a polling station in downtown Minneapolis on Friday, Sept. 21, 2018, on the first day of early voting in Minnesota in the 2018 midterm elections. Minnesota law allowed in-person voting to begin Friday — a full 46 days early — making it the first battleground state to begin casting actual votes in the broader fight for control of Congress. (AP Photo/Steve Karnowski)


Since 2016, it seems like there has been an effort to mainstream the argument that American elections are not binary. Not only is the idea counterintuitive (in our two party system the only possible winners are not named Evan McMullin) but is seems like that it was invented to persuade people to not vote for Donald Trump. If we go back to 2016 we can find:

The Daily Wire The Myth Of The Binary Choice
Believe it or not, this is an argument for using your vote for private virtue signaling.

Chicago Tribune (only significant because the writer is Ramesh Ponuru) You don’t have to vote for Trump or Clinton
Also an argument for using your vote for private virtue signaling.

Reason Politics ‘Is Only A Binary Choice if We Listen To the Duopoly’

Steven Hayes, then at Fox News and the Weakly Standard (not a typo) Donald Trump Is Crazy, and So Is the GOP for Embracing Him

Reason “Binary Choices” Like Trump or Clinton Are So 20th Century

The argument resurfaced at the publication directed by Charlie Three Wives the Moral Avenger, that would be The Bulwark, this past April. Here is Jonathan Last arguing that here is no binary choice Down With the ‘Binary Choice’ Nonsense. In it Last argues that the choice isn’t binary because you are voting on the future.

The reason I ask these questions is to make a point about the “binary choice” trope.

It drives me crazy when people say that an election is a “binary choice.”

When people trot out the binary choice, they’re trying to reduce the election to two defined choices whose outcomes are totally understood. They want to pretend that you know exactly what outcome you’re getting with either choice and that the outcomes stop the minute the choice is made.

In truth, an election is a choice of timelines, not people or ideologies.

And those timelines are unknowable and uncertain. They’re contingent. They stretch out into the future.

Parts of these future timelines are reasonably foreseeable: You could reasonably predict that a Clinton victory in 2016 still would have been accompanied by a Republican congressional majority. And from that you could reasonably predict that Clinton would have been a constrained chief executive.

Other parts of these timelines stretch over the horizon.

This strikes me as gibberish. If I’m in a burning car I have two choices, stay or go. It doesn’t matter that I stay because I have two toddlers in the backseat that I have to unbuckle and toss out of the car and I willingly sacrifice my life or if I’m a Bulwark staff writer on the way to work and I don’t have the ability to make a decision about what is the best form of virtue signaling. Either way I’m dead. If leave, it doesn’t matter if I run to get the fire department or stroll off to the nearest tavern to have a celebratory drink. I’m alive. In fact, the whole Flight 93 Election essay was premised on the idea that we don’t know what will happen under Trump.

2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees.

Now, with Trump appearing to be the favorite in 2020, suddenly the Bulwark gang is rediscovering the binary election. This is from noted expert on all things expert-able, Tom Nichols.

A binary election, thanks to Trump.

This election is, like every other election for president, binary. It doesn’t matter what you do, the outcome is binary. You can decide that you don’t want to participate in that election, either by staying hope or a protest vote, but that doesn’t change the nature of the contest. There are only two people on the ballot with a chance to be president. You not voting for one of them only means that give up your vote for president.

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